By Chris Kenrick/Special to The Almanac
Every Monday, Anna Marie Janky loads the back of her Ford Escape with 16 hot meals and a cooler full of milk, and begins her door-to-door deliveries through Menlo Park and Redwood City.
Janky, a volunteer who lives in Los Altos, is part of a vast network of drivers – some paid and some volunteer – who last year delivered 220 million meals to homebound seniors across the United States through the nonprofit Meals on Wheels. More than 750,000 of those meals went to residents of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.
Funded by the federal Older Americans Act and other sources, the Meals on Wheels program is meant to bolster nutrition and also to combat isolation among mobility-impaired seniors who have trouble leaving their homes.
Nationally, the number of Meals on Wheels deliveries has declined by 21 million since 2005 due to rising costs, according to Meals on Wheels America, an umbrella group that tracks 5,000 independently run local programs.
"Food, transportation and other costs have increased while funding remains stagnant," said Jenny Young, vice president of communications for the national group. "Also, nationally, eight out of 10 low-income, food insecure seniors are not receiving the home-delivered or congregate meals they likely need," Young said.
Locally, the situation is mixed.
Santa Clara County says it has the means to provide Meals on Wheels to all eligible applicants.
But Janky's program in San Mateo County has a growing waitlist.
"We now have almost 280 on the waitlist," said Rebecca Matteson Nelson, director of development for the nonprofit Peninsula Volunteers, Inc., which operates Meals on Wheels for all of San Mateo County except for Pacifica and the Coastside. The group last year delivered 150,000 meals to 1,100 clients.
"The primary issue is the funding gap to meet the ever-growing need," Nelson said. "When you are hungry, nothing else matters."
In Santa Clara County, Meals on Wheels Director Henri Villalovoz said recent demand for the service has held steady and even slightly dropped.
"We do not have a wait list because we enroll each eligible applicant that applies," Villalovoz said. That program last year delivered 600,531 meals to about 920 clients.
Janky is one of 100 volunteer drivers for the Peninsula Volunteers' San Mateo County program (the program also employs 12 paid drivers).
Janky said in addition to food delivery, the group's service model provides daily, face-to-face check-ins with recipients.
"It's easy to tell quickly whether (a recipient) is doing okay, especially if they come to the door," Janky said.
Because programs are independently run, the Meals on Wheels service looks substantially different in Santa Clara County.
Rather than daily visits, Santa Clara County recipients (including 68 in Palo Alto) get once-a-week deliveries of seven frozen dinners and seven breakfasts, plus bread, milk, juices and vegetables, Villalovoz said.
All food is prepared and delivered by paid employees of the national food vendor Bateman Community Living, with whom Santa Clara County contracts to provide the service for more than 900 people countywide.
On a recent Monday morning after loading her car with meals, cooked daily at Menlo Park senior services agency Little House, Janky studied a printout with driving directions and instructions for each stop on her route where she'd deliver that day's hot meal – chicken, squash and beets, along with whole wheat bread, butter and an orange.
At one home in a trailer park, the instructions warned her, "Don't let the dog out!" At another, the printout advised Janky to "see if door is unlocked. If so, open slightly and announce yourself loudly. Place meal in refrigerator and leave."
In Menlo Park, she knocked on the door of 90-year-old Pearlean Brazil and could tell at a glance Brazil was doing fine.
The fresh meals "mean a lot for a person living alone like me," said Brazil, seated in her tidy living room. "When my husband was alive, I uses to do a lot of cooking." But Brazil's husband, a career employee of the Menlo Park VA, died in 2016. And since she no longer drives, Brazil must rely on others to help her get groceries or get to the Palo Alto church where she's been a member since 1954.
Barbara Tingley, 72, lives with her small dog, Nala, in a Redwood City trailer and has difficulty with mobility.
"The meals are good – I like all of them except the ones with tomato sauce because it hurts my stomach," she said.
Tingley said she relies on help from neighbors to get groceries or get to her monthly medical appointments. She uses her cane to venture out of her trailer a few times a day to take Nala for walks.
"I've lived with pain in my knee since 2011, even after surgery," Tingley said. "It locks up sometimes so I have to be careful."
Though many pay nothing for the meal service, Meals on Wheels recipients in both Santa Clara and San Mateo counties are asked to contribute, if possible.
"People don't have to pay, but everybody's given a statement every month," Janky said. "Some people can't afford to pay anything but some people can pay part of the cost."
For more information about Meals on Wheels in San Mateo County, go to penvol.org. To volunteer as a driver, contact volunteer coordinator Ann Eisenberg at [email protected] or (650) 272-5108.
For more information about Meals on Wheels in Santa Clara County go to mysourcewise.com and click on "services" or call (408) 350-3246.
Chris Kenrick is a freelance writer.